The Magic Hour (ザ・マジックアワー, Koki Mitani, 2008)

Magic Hour PosterIf there’s one thing you can say about the work of Japan’s great comedy master Koki Mitani, it’s that he knows his cinema. Nowhere is the abundant love of classic cinema tropes more apparent than in 2008’s The Magic Hour (ザ・マジックアワー) which takes the form of an absurdist meta comedy mixing everything from American ‘20s gangster flicks to film noir and screwball comedy to create the ultimate homage to the golden age of the silver screen.

In classic style the film opens with a bunch of goons chasing a scantily clad club owner out of a hotel window. Bingo (Satoshi Tsumabuki) has been hitting the jackpot with the boss’ girl, Mari (Eri Fukatsu), so the two are about to be given a new set of kicks in the latest fashion – cement. Luckily Bingo overhead some of the other guys talking about looking for another gangster, Della Togashi, so he quickly starts talking about him as if he were a long lost friend. The boss, Tessio (Toshiyuki Nishida), gives the pair a reprieve on the condition Bingo tracks down Togashi and brings him in within five days. Slight hitch – Bingo had never heard of Togashi before today and has no idea where to start. Finally, with the help  of some of his bar staff he hatches on the idea of getting a random actor to play the part, seeing as no one knows what Togashi looks like. However, the actor, Murata (Koichi Sato), plays his part a little too well and gets hired to work for the gang all the while thinking it’s just a movie! Pretty much everyone is getting a little more than they bargained for…

If you’re thinking that the oddly American looking 1920s street scene looks a little fake and everyone seems to be overacting like crazy, you wouldn’t be wrong but like everything else there’s a reason for that. What originally looks to be the primary setting for the film is a strange bubble which seems to co-exist with the modern world only its filled with people straight out of The Public Enemy or Scarface who think cement shoes is an efficient way of dealing with traitors. Murata, by contrast, is from our world and is completely oblivious to the strangeness of this movie gangster sound stage universe.

Murata is fixated on the Casablanca-esque final scene of his favourite movie in which a dyed in the wool tough guy entrusts the love of his life to a loyal friend before heading off to face certain death. His own career has not been going particularly well and even if he originally turns down Bingo’s offer as working with a first time director on a film where there’s no script sounds pretty fishy to begin with, circumstances soon find him throwing himself into the mysterious leading role with aplomb. Indulging his long held gangster dreams, Murata becomes the archetypal movie hit-man. He’s giving the performance of his life but has no idea there is no film in the camera.

The “Magic Hour” of the title refers to the twilight time near the end of the day when the light is dying but the conditions are perfect for making a movie. Mitani doesn’t fail to remind us we’re watching a film with constant exclamations of “just like a movie” or “doesn’t this look like a film set”. It’s a Barnum & Bailey world, just as phoney as it can be – but somehow it all just works despite its rather arch, meta approach. By the point we’ve hit Mari sitting on a crescent moon to give us her rendition of I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles (we’re back to The Public Enemy again) we’ve hit peak ‘20s though we scarcely mind at all.

Though he is indeed sending a lot of these classic ideas up, there’s real love here particularly for those golden age Hollywood movies with their wounded tough guys and beautiful chorus girls in need of rescue. Mitani adopts a primarily theatrical tone which meshes well with the absurdist, artificial atmosphere but always makes sure to leave us a fair few clues in the way of laughs. However, probably correctly assuming we know these films as well as he does, Mitani doesn’t give us the typical narrative that would almost write itself (or allow Bingo to write it based on his own trips to the motion picture house). The “bad” guy turns out to be not so bad, the “hero” wasn’t who we thought he was and none of our central guys winds up with a girl. Beautifully silly yet intricately constructed, The Magic Hour is another comedy masterpiece from Mitani which is filled with his characteristic warmth, mild sentimentalism and plenty of off-centre humour of the kind only Mitani can come up with.


The Japanese DVD/blu-ray release of The Magic Hour includes English subtitles.

 

Gentle 12 (12人の優しい日本人, Shun Nakahara, 1991)

161_img_1_oAs you might be able to tell from its title, Gentle 12 (12人の優しい日本人, Juninin no Yasashii Nihonjin) is a loose Japanese parody of the stage play 12 Angry Men notably filmed by Sidney Lumet back in 1957. The Japanese title literally translates as “12 Kindly Japanese Guys” and the film takes the same premise of twelve jurors debating the verdict in a murder case which was previously thought fairly straightforward. This time our jury is a little more balanced as it’s not just guys in the room and even the men are of a more diverse background.

In contrast to the American version, each of our twelve jurors is immediately inclined to acquit and some of them are even walking out the door before one juror, Juror no. 2, raises an objection. He thinks the defendant may be guilty and they should at least talk about it a little more. Irritated, the jurors walk back into the room and enquire why he’s had this sudden change of heart. They will, of course, be entitled to some refreshments now, so what’s the harm in hanging round to talk things through. Eventually people start to switch sides, some in confusion or just wanting to get it over with, but gradually each is exposed as having a personal reason for feeling the way they do that has relatively little to do with the facts of the case.

In contrast to the original stage play, the first instinct of the Japanese jurors is to acquit. No one wants to believe the defendant, who is the mother of a young child accused of pushing her violent ex-husband into the path of an oncoming truck, could have wilfully planned such an outrageous crime in advance. Whatever the facts are, she has clearly suffered enough and her child certainly doesn’t deserve to be orphaned through having its mother taken away by over zealous seekers of “justice”. Nevertheless Juror no.2 doesn’t believe her story and thinks there’s at least the possibility that she pushed him deliberately if not having engineered the entire situation in someway.

As in the American version, they proceed to debate the facts of the case in detail but while some change sides after thinking over the arguments, others are rigidly committed to their positions. Of those in the not guilty camp, some of them can’t quite articulate their reasoning beyond “it’s just a feeling” which proves particularly infuriating to Juror No. 2. The US version placed more emphasis on societal prejudices with personal ones largely backing them up – i.e. they took against the defendant in that case because he was a poor boy from the slums so in their middle class, majority culture minds it was natural that he was guilty. Here, there’s a great deal of sympathy for the defendant who seems to have experienced a lot of misfortune but continues to try and do the best for her young son.

Even so, some take against her because she reminds them of past misfortune of their own, or take against the victim because even as a thoroughly unpleasant man he’d managed to attract himself a pretty wife and son only to misuse and abandon them. Some believe themselves to be excellent judges of character or to be good at spotting a liar only to have their opinions about themselves undermined when scrutinised. The revelations here are personal rather than societal, but the central fact remains that you can’t really ever know or prove what happened and even having witnessed something with your own eyes doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve totally understood the situation fully. Much of the juror’s deliberations consist of creating a narrative out of scattered facts and exercises in supposition. In the end, it more or less comes down to gut feeling anyway.

Originating as a stage play and scripted by Japanese comedy master Koki Mitani, Gentle 12 has its moments of humour and never really takes itself too seriously. What else could you say about a case which seems to hinge on the smallest size of pizza available from a delivery company and how someone might say the words “ginger ale” when really, really angry. The “kindly” jurors also have a wonderful tendency towards tolerance or towards restrained anger that sees them getting quite annoyed whilst trying not to lose their tempers in exasperation or just calmly restating their arguments (or lack thereof) and infuriating everyone else in the process. Neatly filmed by Shun Nakahara, Gentle 12 might not have the same level of cultural bite as its original work suggests but it does prove an enjoyably absurd confined space drama which offers a few cultural revelations of its own.


 

University of Laughs (笑の大学, Mamoru Hoshi, 2004)

warainodaigakuUniversity of Laughs (笑の大学, Warai no Daigaku) is certainly an apt name for a film which aims to teach the universal power of comedy. Based on a 1997 stage play by Japanese comedy master Koki Mitani and directed by Mamoru Hoshi, the film is set in 1940 at the height of Japan’s militaristic fervour. With the annexation of Manchuria only three years previously and the war in full swing, there is no room for such petty bourgeois pleasures as slapstick comedy shows. The censor’s stamp rules all and if the piece doesn’t exult the glorious nature of the empire, then what good is it?

Or so thinks recent Manchurian returnee Sakisaka (Koji Yakusho) – the newly appointed occupier of the censor’s chair. Sakisaka has been appointed because he has no sense of humour at all and very little in the way of human feeling. In fact, he even thinks this censorship business is a little pointless and it would be better to just ban everything outright. Then, one day, he encounters quite the stupidest piece of low comedy he’s ever come across in the form of the latest play by a company called “University of Laughs” written by their company director, Tsubaki (Goro Inagaki).

Tsubaki is a nervous, neurotic young man. “Don’t worry, we very rarely use torture” Sakisaka reassures him. Still, Tsubaki tries to talk him through his parodic play script called “The Tragedy of Juleo and Romiet”. However, Tsubaki’s play is no good at all! It’s full of foreigners! And there’s romance, and no one talks about how amazing Japan is, what the hell sort of play is this!? Sakisaka tells him to bring it back tomorrow with the requisite changes. However, tomorrow’s effort is only a little better. Maybe another day? Gradually over the course of a week the pair become uneasy collaborators as Sakisaka eventually rediscovers his sense of humour.

The central irony being that in trying to eliminate all subversive elements in the script, Sakisaka actually ends up in the position of editor – all of the changes he suggests only succeed in making the play funnier and more coherent. The more advice he receives from Sakisaka, the better a writer Tsubaki becomes. However, Sakisaka is the representative of everything the true artists abhors as the tool of an oppressive state which seeks to repress all independent thought. In going along with Sakisaka’s recommendations, isn’t Tsubaki becoming just another government lapdog? Is it better to compromise, go as far as you can go, and stay open or should you staunchly refuse and boycott the regime in its entirety?

For Tsubaki, comedy is a religion. He’s a comedy writer, if he can’t write comedies he may as well not exist at all and the way he sees it, this stuff is making the work better so who cares what it’s all about, really, so long as the work is good. His actors, though, feel differently and Tsubaki is paying a heavy price for his awkward quasi-friendship with the government stooge. Nevertheless, the two develop a strange bond with the previously stiff Sakisaka bucking his rigid adherence to government doublespeak in opening up to Tsubaki’s comedic education. However, their friendship may not be as deep as Tsubaki hopes when he unwisely reveals his real feelings about the regime causing Sakisaka to remind him where his loyalties lie. This is 1940 after all and the spectre of war lies all around. In the end, even if Tsubaki’s now near perfect work is passed for presentation, he may be unable to realise it in person.

Consciously old fashioned, University of Laughs has echoes of Fellini though perhaps filtered through mid period Woody Allen. The Nino Rota-esque score further enhances the association as does the idea of the fascist state as a mad circus where one is forced repeat the same actions over and over again until the ringmasters finally applaud. Warm, witty and surprisingly engaging for a film that is essentially two guys in a room for two hours, University of Laughs is another impressive effort from the pen of Mitani which offers both a cutting critique of oppressive censorship, a defence of the artist and an exultation of the universal power of laughter.